Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Durham Height


This is a found poem made up of reports on Durham from Booker T Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Pauli Murray, and the (red-lining) Home Owners' Loan Corporation, as well as Indiana Senator Albert Beveridge (praising American expansion in 1898, the year North Carolina reactionaries broke Reconstruction). Washington and Du Bois visited in the decade afterward, when African Americans had been effectively disenfranchised.

The Durham Height

[Booker T]
I found here the sanest attitude of the white people toward the black.
Disabused long ago of the “social equality” bugbear, the white people,
and the best ones, too, never feared
to go among the Negroes at their gatherings and never feared to aid them
in securing an education, or any kind of improvement.

Major Guthrie said to the other members of the board,
“I think it is better to buy land and build a schoolhouse for the Negroes
than to shoot them down.”
Thirty years of experience
has proved that he was correct.

Mr. Fitzgerald has supplied the material for many of the largest brick
structures in the city.  I cannot refrain from emphasizing
once more the absence of color discrimination
in a work of this sort.
Fitzgerald owes his success almost entirely to Southern white men.
One man in particular, Mr. Blackwell,
the great tobacco manufacturer, said to him,
“Fitzgerald, get all the Negroes and mules you can, and make brick.
I will take all that you can make.”

Uncle Richard Fitzgerald was known as the town’s leading brick manufacturer
and was considered wealthy.
When my aunts went to town men of good breeding tipped their hats
and used courtesy titles in transactions.  They went
where they pleased with little restraint and were all
grown women before the first law requiring separation on trains and streetcars
appeared in North Carolina.

The Fitzgeralds had downed roots in North Carolina
at the very moment the Ku-Klux Klan was rising over the state.
Grandfather’s school had only eight scholars at first.
In the mornings they found the ground almost cut to pieces from horses’
hoofs where the Ku-Kluxers had ridden round and round
the empty little cottage and the schoolhouse.

He killed pigs, cured hams, and traded the hams at Brown’s store
in Hillsboro for stockings, cloth, and groceries.
He mended shoes and even tried making a pair.
His price was $3.50 and he took payment in flour
at five cents a pound.

Then he went down to Raleigh to see if he could not get more contracts.
“The morning was dark and rainy and there being no station or platform
we had to make a fire along the road in the darkness & rain, &
when the train came in sight to stand on the track and wave
a light to and fro across the track.”  The first trip
yielded no returns but on the second he got a contract
“to make the 4,000,000 brick for the penitentiary.”

Grandfather was almost delirious with joy.

It was as if the town had swallowed more than it could hold
and had regurgitated, for the Bottoms,
was a odorous conglomeration of trash piles, garbage dumps, cow
stalls, pigpens and crowded humanity.
You could tell it at night
by the straggling lights from oil lamps glimmering along
the hollows and smell
of putrefaction, pig swill, cow dung and frying food.

Of course, my family would never admit
we lived in the Bottoms.
They always said we lived
“Behind Maplewood Cemetery.”

People whose kin were buried close to our house
often came to the fence to borrow scissors, a jar or hoe
to fix up their graves.
We never refused them and often they would stand at the fence
for a while talking of their dead
as if it eased them to have a listener so close by the grave.

“Aint—ee,” she said, kin you lin me a hoe?”
Grandmother walked to the back door.
“Don’t you ‘aint’ee’ me, you pore white trash.  I’m
none of your kinfolks!”

Many honest Southerners fear to encourage the pushing, enterprising Negro.
Durham has not feared.  It has distinctly encouraged
the best kind of black man by active aid
and passive tolerance.

The rise of a group of black people to the Durham height
and higher, means not a disappearance, but, in some respects,
an accentuation of the race problem.

But let the future lay its own ghosts; to-day there is
a singular group in Durham where a black man may get up
in the morning from a mattress made by black men,
in a house which black men built out of lumber
which black men cut and planed.
He may earn his living working for colored men, be sick
in a colored hospital, and buried from
a colored church, and the Negro insurance society
will pay his widow enough
to keep his children in a colored school.
This is surely progress.

First Grade (A): Almost synonymous with the areas where
good mortgage lenders with available funds are willing.
They are homogeneous; in demand as residential locations
in “good” times or “bad.”

Third Grade: Yellow areas are characterized by age and obsolescence
and change of style; expiring restrictions
or lack of them, infiltration of
lower grade population.
“Jerry” built areas are included, as well as
neighborhoods lacking homogeneity.
Good mortgage lenders are more
conservative in the Third grade.

During the depression years the tobacco and cigarette factories
did not seem to suffer, but on the contrary
their business increased, which offset
the decline in knitting mills and cotton mills.  This apparently
was the chief reason for continued activity in
lower-priced properties.

While there are many desirable homes in area B-4,
it is a very old part of the city,
adjoins part of the main business district on the south,
a section largely populated by Negroes joins it on the east.
It is almost in the “C” classification.

We do need what we have taken in 1898,
and we need it now.
Fellow citizens – it is a noble land that God has given us,
a greater England with a nobler destiny.
It is a mighty people He has planted on this soil;
a people imperial by virtue of their power,
by right of their institutions,
by authority of their Heaven-directed purposes –
the propagandists and not the misers of liberty.

Shall the American people continue their resistless march
toward the commercial supremacy of the world?

The Opposition tells us that we ought not to govern people
without their consent.
I answer, the rule of liberty that all government
derives its authority from the consent of the governed,
applies only to those who are capable of self-government.

Shall we turn these peoples back to the reeking
hands from which we have taken them?

The march of the flag!
The infidels to the gospel of liberty raved,
but the flag swept on!

It is little wonder, then, perhaps, that I
was strongly anti-American at six, that I
hated George Washington, mumbled the oath
of allegiance to the American flag.

I do not know how long this lack of patriotism might have kept up
if Grandfather Fitzgerald had not died.
As a Union veteran, Grandfather
was entitled to a United States flag for his grave
so every May I walked proudly
through a field of Confederate flags.

There was little identity in my mind between
the Union flag which waved over my grandfather’s grave
and the United States flag on which I looked
with so much skepticism at West End School.
It would be a while yet before I realized
that the two were the same.

I spent many hours digging up weeds, cutting grass, and
tending the family plot.
It was only a few feet from the main highway
between Durham and Chapel Hill.  I wanted
the white people who drove by to see this banner
and me standing by it.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Jim Webb & Generalissimo Trump

I found it weirdly poignant when, late this last week, former Virginia Democratic senator Jim Webb said that he could imagine voting for Donald Trump, but not for Hillary Clinton. Maybe Webb, who lasted about 10 minutes in the primary with a resenting-affirmative-action populist deal, and used to be a Republican (as a military official in the Reagan administration), is just an opportunist hoping for a VP slot. But there was a time when his victories in Appalachian Virginia, where other Democrats lose and Trump dominated last week, were seen as a hopeful front for the party.

It also got me thinking. One of the provocative but under-developed claims in Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me is that "white" people, if they want a heritage, should look to what their families were before they were "white." It's attractive, but, unlike much of what Coates writes, simplistic. 

I think of this because Webb is a literary practitioner of a certain kind of white-ethnic identity politics. He wrote a book about the Scots-Irish called "Born Fighting." These descendants of lowland Scots and northern English folk were settled in Ulster to displace the Catholic Irish after the colonial wars of the late c16, then moved to the colonies, where they fought in Washington's armies and settled the frontier. (My four-greats grandfather was one: he wintered with Washington at Valley Force.) They have always been the foot soldiers for blue-blood wars, right down through Vietnam, and they have always been reliably, even belligerently patriotic. As an ethnicity, they were formed by serving as the bleeding edge of two colonial projects - the Anglo-Ulster and the American.

Given the bloody and racially hierarchical history of this country, there are a lot of "white" people whose inherited cultural identity basically comes out of the violent crucible that made "whiteness," without a lot more left back there to recover. In a time when many of those people are economically abandoned and feel culturally displaced, it's not surprising that they are reasserting what they've got. Which, as a matter of culture and (as they like to say in the South) "heritage," is pretty much restricted to fighting for the winning side and getting some spoils (material and symbolic) of victory.

I think this is a reason to want politics to be about principles and programs - including programs of economic fairness and inclusion. I'm a Sanders voter. I know Coates agrees, and I think Webb once did, too. But the identity politics of whiteness, intensified by a time when there have been no economical alternatives on the table, may have closed that door for tens of millions. Whether you can bring yourself to care about them or not, that is a bad end to a bad story. Washington's troops are fighting for Generalissimo Trump.

Friday, March 4, 2016

The Second Coming

The Second Coming (W.B. Yeats), adapted for 2016
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The drone cannot hear the operator;
Things fall apart; the center has been sold;
Some dick-pic talk is loosed upon the world,
The Twitter feed is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of democracy is drowned;
The best run out of sick burns, while the rest
Convict them with passionate intensity. 

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely Hamilton will save us now?
His Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Dealio
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of upscale Queens
A shape with lion body (corpulent, zoo-kept) and the head of a man (lion-maned),
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its small hands, while all about it
Reel shadows of indignant Romney tweets.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That demagoguery’s stoned sleep
Was vexed to nightmare by a country it did not care to recognize
Or feel itself recognized by.
And what rough beast, its hour come round again,
Slouches towards Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Center to be born?